Is There Gender Bias in Christian Non-Profits?

by Rebecca Hopkins

Women may struggle finding their voice in meetings. They may want to grow in their roles, but don’t have anyone willing to mentor them. They may not be considered for high-level management in Christian non-profits. And their work often goes unnoticed and unsupported, particularly when a couple is sharing one support-based salary. That’s what the latest studies in gender bias in faith-based organizations have shown. 

I sat down to talk with Biola University professor Leanne Dzubinski, who has a doctorate in ministry, an additional Ph. D., and 25 years’ experience in cross cultural ministry. She and other researchers recently surveyed more than 1,500 female leaders about gender bias, 300 of whom come from faith-based organizations.

The 2020 report can be accessed here: “Measuring the Invisible: Development and multi-industry validation of the Gender Bias Scale for Women Leaders.” (Fellow researchers include Amy Diehl, Amber Stephenson and David Wang.) The study is a follow-up to Dzubinski’s and Diehl’s 2016 study on both faith-based organizations and in higher education, titled, “Making the Invisible Visible: A cross-sector analysis of gender-based barriers.”


Can you give me a brief summary of the purpose and the results of the studies?

When Amy and I started working together, we looked around and realized that researchers tend to look at just one thing, such as unequal pay, harassment, work/life balance or lack of mentoring. We didn’t see anything that looked at the whole picture. Our first study built a comprehensive picture of the many things that women encounter as leaders in male-dominated culture. We found 27 types of bias. 


Is there anything particularly different with faith-based organizations?

We did cross-industry analysis and we did see some differences. (Editor’s note: The researchers also included women leaders from law, medicine, and education in the 2020 study.) 

Everything we identified was present in every sector. Everything is everywhere, but the strength of it differs by field. Part of the reason may be the nature of different industries. For instance, the medical field is highly professionalized. Law is highly competitive. 

As I’ve done this research over the years, I often hear women in mission agencies who say, “We’re 10 years behind the times.”

But we’re not the worst. We’re not the best. We’re just the mainstream. 

Specifically, hostility gender bias, like workplace harassment and queen bee syndrome, was one of the lowest types of biases in the faith-based communities. That aligns with our values. We don’t take kindly to harassing. It could also mean that we’re socialized not to critique and complain.

Interestingly, we did not score badly on salary inequality, even though, in the United States, women still earn an average of 78 percent of what men earn.  That could be because nobody goes into missions work to make a lot of money. (Editor’s note: One exception that the 2016 study identified was the two-person career model, in which one salary is raised to support the work of a couple. This model was identified as a form of gender bias.) 


So, what are the types of gender bias with which faith-based organizations struggle? 

There’s a lack of mentoring and lack of sponsorship. There were disproportionate constraints in self-monitoring and how we communicate, how we speak up in a meeting. Do you get your voice heard? Women report being scrutinized more closely.  

Also, women are expected to be nurturing and caring, a form of gender role socialization. It has become embedded in evangelical faith and labeled as “Christian.” This is a fundamental, gender role stereotype. But it doesn’t help our men who like to be kind and nurturing and don’t get recognized for that. And it doesn’t help our women who have a million ideas and don’t get recognized for that. 


Tell me more about the two-person career model and its effect on how women are treated in mission organizations. (Editor’s Note: This was a finding from the 2016 study.)

One of the reasons why the two-person career model hinders us in mission organization, the default is to make the women’s work invisible. If there’s one annual report from the family, then nobody knows what the woman actually contributed. If it’s not seen, it may not be supported. It’s hard to support it if you can’t see it.  


What are the biggest hurdles for Christians to believe gender bias exists?

In our first study, Amy and I identified gender bias unconsciousness, the idea that someone just does not believe or is not aware that gender matters in the workplace. Women say, “I worked my way to the top, it may not be a problem.” Men reinforce this idea that, “You’re special, you’re not like other women. You have the qualifications to come in and work on this but most women don’t.” 

With conscious unconsciousness, a woman may be aware this is going on, but chooses to distance herself, maybe for self-preservation. 

Gender bias unconsciousness did not show up in this (2020) study. Maybe now it’s virtually impossible to claim this doesn’t exist due to the #metoo and #churchtoo movements. 

On the flip side, I think we’re still dealing with an evangelical subculture that overall prizes male leadership. Women’s leadership has become more accepted at the middle level, and at functional levels like human resources. More CFOs are headed by women now, too. The middle level seems to be OK for women, because there’s still a male above her.  But we still struggle with putting women into those top positions. 

Several things contribute to this, including “sanctified sexism.” This means religiously-based gender schemas, which are used to permit, justify, or excuse treating women differently. Often it’s cast as chivalry or protection by men. But the effect is to diminish a woman’s authority and ability to make choices for her life.

So, for example, not asking a married woman if she wants a leadership role because the male leaders assume she’s too busy with her children is sanctified sexism. They made the decision for her (treating her like a child) instead of with her. 


What’s the impact of gender bias on organizations?

Two things that came out in our current study: increased turnover intent and lower job satisfaction. In practical terms for mission agencies, think how expensive and time intensive it is to recruit and deploy a missionary. Women who leave, who self-select to leave the organization and do something else, costs the organization.  

The benefits that research has shown us when we do have a better handle on diversity are better creativity, better decision-making, and better outcomes financially. When we have those diverse voices in the conversation in the beginning, the outcomes are better. The organizations, although they may not see it, are hurting themselves.


How has the year 2020 affected this topic?

COVID has been a massive wakeup call for all kinds of organizations who have been chugging along. Mission agencies may capitalize on it, saying, “We know we need to change, but now we’ve got a kick in the pants to get us moving on this.”

Here’s how we can change: including diverse voices, strategizing well and not just falling back on the things we used to be. I’d also include race and ethnicity in the discussion about our need for diversity. The broader and more diverse the pool the better. It may take longer to figure it out, but the result is better. 


How could women and organizations use this survey tool to better their cultures? 

An individual woman could go through the survey and score herself, and say, “Now I understand what’s happening.” It could be personally encouraging: “Oh, this isn’t just an issue that I face, but typical for other women.” 

Or organizations could have women leaders take this and analyze the results. Are there areas where they’re doing really poorly? Then find the areas that aren’t too bad and get quick early wins to improve them. This will grow confidence that this is working. And second, find areas that score poorly and come up with a plan to address those. It’s different for every organization. The downside is there’s not a cookie cutter approach. But the upside is that it could be used to identify particular areas for growth.

The questions themselves are in the article. All you need are Survey Monkey and someone who knows statistical analysis to analyze the results for you. 

Amy, Amber and I are open to consultancy to analyze this scale. There are lots of organizations that can help with organizational change.


How does change happen in organizations? What are the obstacles to change?

It can feel very disruptive to people who are used to doing things a certain way. For major change, the top leadership needs to be on board and be the spokesperson for continual change. For individual women who are trying to bring about change, be prepared for opposition. Be sure God is calling you to this. 


Do you have any stories to share about women leaders in Christian nonprofits about your research about gender bias? 

I do hear stories. There are two lessons, the takeaways that I get over and over again. The first is, women say, “Oh this wonderful.  I have a name for this experience that I went through and I can make sense of it. It’s not my failure.” It helps them not to self-blame and that’s really important. The other thing is how much hurt women have absorbed, how much comes at them. 

But with that hurt, I cannot tell you of a single story where a woman has become bitter. I’m sure there are women who have walked away from the faith. Research tells us that. But I’m not hearing those stories from missionary women or at the college. They’re staying faithful to their organizations, the church and their calling. They persevere. God has called them, and they do not give that up lightly. 

I’m really hopeful that organizations will use (the survey), that it will be helpful for women personally and helpful for organizations more broadly. I’ve been concerned about our mission industry for a long time. If we can improve health in this area it might impact race relations, our relationships with our children, our national partners. It could spread out in a way that can help us do ministry more completely.  

Also, in our present situation of hurt, I believe that women could be the ones to lead in racial reconciliation and change.


Editor’s note: Missio Nexus members can access Dzubinski’s recent presentation on this topic.



Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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